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The Luxury of School Librarians

A high school junior in Pittsburgh has won “the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association’s ‘Me? A School Librarian” contest.’” That’s exciting for her, I’m sure.

She’ll get to go to a state library association conference, which will probably be less exciting, where she will “be formally recognized at an awards breakfast and meet with [the association president] to discuss a possible future as a school librarian.”

Perhaps during their meeting, they can discuss this story about laid off teachers elsewhere in the state.

Recently, “the Scranton School Board approved a plan by administration to lay off 28 tenured teachers and 23 nontenured teachers.” Of the 51 teachers being fired, 12 are librarians.

If 24% of the fired teachers being librarians seems like a large percentage, that’s because it is. They don’t make up 24% of the teacher jobs. It turns out that librarians were specially targeted.

District administration originally planned to eliminate 89 positions, including all elementary school librarians and art, gym and physical education teachers. German and Latin programs also would have been eliminated, and the district would have cut industrial arts and family and consumer sciences programs dramatically.

Instead, the board approved the plan that only eliminates librarians.

It’s good that the students can still learn German and Latin, I guess. It’ll help them get jobs in the future negotiating with our two major trading partners: Germany and the Roman Empire.

It was a bit surprising that librarians were less of a priority than “consumer science,” which doesn’t sound like a real science. Then again, “library science” isn’t a real science, either.

The kicker, at least if you’re one of the librarians being kicked: “The administration said the effects on students will be minimal.”

They’ll have teachers taking children to the library to check out books, which is better for the kids than outright closing the libraries like some school districts have done, but it’s not better for the librarians.

For a long time I’ve been writing about the librarian shortage myth and how library schools and the ALA promote librarianship as a career for any and all despite there being many fewer jobs than there are candidates.

If you agree with my analysis – and clearly the ALA and library schools don’t – then you might also wonder about the ethics of promoting school librarianship as a career when the biggest news about school librarians is always that they’re getting fired.

Maybe Pittsburgh’s okay for now, but not Philadelphia or Scranton, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or New York.

The implication is always the same: that despite their claim that they’re also teachers, librarian “teachers” are always a low priority compared to classroom teachers. Every time there’s a budget cut and an administration has to decide who goes, it’s always the librarians.

One could argue that school librarians just have a bad image problem and the facts support their importance, but they don’t have a bad image problem. People love school librarians.

Whether the facts support how important they are is mixed, but it’s a moot point. Administrations don’t care about studies talking about how important librarians are for reading or information literacy or, lord help us, “fake news,” when the only other option is removing a teacher from a classroom.

School librarians have become a luxury, or maybe they always were. The first professional school librarians emerged in the early 20th century, and their professional association didn’t achieve division status within ALA until 1951.

School librarianship, like so much else related to American education, started booming in boom times when America was both rich and cared about public education.

When a country is rich and cares about educating its citizens, school librarians flourish, along with public universities, science funding, etc.

When a country is poor, or doesn’t care about educating its citizens, the only thing that matters is keeping enough teachers in the classroom that enraged parents don’t make too much trouble for school administrators.

America’s still ridiculously rich, despite the equally ridiculous public debt, but educating the citizens has become a luxury for those who can afford it, with school librarians the biggest luxury of all. What a country.

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Comments

  1. unemployed librarian says:

    “One could argue that school librarians just have a bad image problem and the facts support their importance, but they don’t have a bad image problem. People love school librarians.”

    Yes, they do have a bad image problem. When I taught high school for one year, the MLS school librarian provided no support to teachers. There was no outreach either. No information literacy instruction. What few times I took my English classes to the library, I even had to accompany them because the librarian would not supervise the students. All she did was a short presentation to the students mostly going over library rules. Also, every period she had a student aid. She also had two part-time teacher’s aids. I never saw her attend or even help out at any after school event (sports, theater, choir concert, school dance, etc.). She got mostly the same time off teachers did (all holidays, two fewer weeks during the summer), she would arrive at school 30 minutes before first period and leave about 30 minutes after 6th period.

    Besides all the benefits I described above, she also didn’t have any of the requirements teachers had: no lesson plans, no required extracurricular activities, no parent-teacher conferences, no assignments/papers to grade, no accountability for state test results.

    Oh yeah, and she also made more money than I did. It made me want to pursue the MLS/MLIS because I thought, “wow! That’s the kind of job I want!”

  2. anonymous coward says:

    Did you just make the case against needing school librarians?

  3. anonymous coward says:

    “but educating the citizens has become a luxury for those who can afford it”

    Federal spending has increased 117%, adjusted for inflation, since 1970. http://www.politifact.com/virginia/statements/2015/mar/02/dave-brat/brat-us-school-spending-375-percent-over-30-years-/

    How is education a luxury for those who can afford it? We have over doubled federal spending. Total public educational spending is, on average, about $11,400 per student per year. Seems as if we still value and pay for public education.

    If that money is used effectively or not is a different story. I would argue it is not.

  4. The majority of school spending comes from state and local governments, which have had a lot of cuts pushed down to them from the federal level.

  5. anonymous coward says:

    Yes and NO. Spending per student is still UP dramatically over that time period, adjusted for inflation. That $11,400 is inclusive of all spending, federal, state, and local. So, any spending cuts by the federal govt (which haven’t happened, the feds are paying dramatically more per student) are included in that figure. We value and pay for public education. Most public education is good. However, most systems are wasteful and haven’t seen any improvement in measurables to coincide with their spending increases.

  6. My cynical answer: Sadly, one way to keep school librarians would be to start having library science questions on standardized tests. These days, with so many teachers having to teach to those tests it seems that’s all that’s being taught and if it’s not something that will be on that test, then it gets cut.

  7. TN Librarian says:

    Move to Tennessee! My son’s middle school has been without a librarian since October because there are no qualified candidates. I know of several other schools with librarians on waivers (working on their MLS). The shortage is real, here.

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